2013 November “Dear Gratitude” project coming soon!

In the woods, October 2013

In the woods, October 2013

It’s that time of year again. Turkey, dressing, and pie. Leaves making a big color statement. Football season.

And Thanksgiving. Gratitude. Lots of talk about giving back, sharing with others, and counting our blessings.

Yada, yada, yada, right?

Not for me. November’s my favorite month. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Fall is my favorite season. And my favorite baby just happened to be born on November 16th last year. All the cynicism and nay-saying in the world can’t get me down this month. I love focusing on what’s beautiful, positive, and hopeful. These things remind me of God, and God is the ultimate source of my gratitude.

Me and my November blessing

Me and my November blessing

One thing I’ve learned about gratitude after making it a real habit for several years is that gratitude, as a habit, works best when I take action and express it. Keeping gratitude to myself is better than being grumpy and whiny, but if I keep it to myself, I am missing out on opportunities for blessings that come from sharing my blessings with others.

Even though I focus on gratitude all year long–partly by maintaining this blog–I wanted to share the opportunity to express gratitude with people I know and love. So this November, 28 of my favorite people–whom I’m very thankful for!–will share gratitude through writing letters to people, places, things, entities, and institutions they’re thankful for. If you don’t follow this blog yet, you might want to start following it now so you don’t miss out on the Dear Gratitude project this month.

If you get inspired by the letters you read, write some of your own. It’s a simple practical idea with big spiritual potential.

 

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When donkeys speak

*Thanks to guest contributor Debra Dickey for writing today’s post!*

100_4448Lately, I’ve been feeling the regular need to seek a shelter — a dwelling place considered as afforded protection, or a refuge — during the storms and questions in my life.  One of my favorites is described in God’s Word as a ‘cleft in the rock’. 

The words of Sheila Walsh say that God tells Moses, “I will hold on to you. I will create a place, a cleft in the rock for you, to keep you and on which you can steady yourself and stand.”  [Exodus 33:19]   For Moses, the cleft was not just for his protection.  It was also the sanctified place whereby God could let him see a glimpse of His glory and His majesty. The cleft in Horeb for Moses was a symbol and pointer to the Ultimate Cleft for us, Jesus. 

God not only keeps His promises, but He also longs to keep us in them.  This is the ‘shelter’ of all God’s promises.  As it was in those castles long ago, made of rock and stone, the very center tower was called the “keep” and provided shelter, a place of habitation, an operating station from which defense, under siege, was centered. Usually a well was built at the center of the keep so those sustained there could not only endure but thrive

In God’s kingdom, there is a keep, too, and it is Christ. How beautiful that God designed a way to provide such strength for us through Christ.   God makes and keeps His promises to us, regardless of our faithfulness to Him.

Why would God want to keep us and His promises to us when we are so unfaithful?  The Bible reminds us of a truth we too often forget, a truth that shines as clear as daylight: because God cannot help Himself.  God does not change.  “God is not man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.” (Numbers 23:19)

donkeyEven Balaam’s donkey, knowing Balaam’s penchant for his own agenda and not God’s, balked in an effort to save Balaam and steer him in the right direction.  When he is beaten for it, he speaks, chiding Balaam:  “Haven’t you ridden me all your life and have I ever done this before? Why can’t you take another look and see what’s going on here?”[The Shelter of God’s Promises by Sheila Walsh]

Jeremiah 29:11-14 speaks:  “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD. 

Although one commentator states emphatically that this verse is NOT for us, but instead was written specifically to the exiles at that time in Babylon, it is not difficult to discover present-day truths and lessons that can be found therein:   We are also exiles in a manner of speaking, looking at this world as only a temporary home.  Yet life goes on.  Jeremiah told the exiles of his day to live as normal lives as possible. Sometimes we are called upon to face tremendous difficulties.  Through all of life’s hardships there is one absolutely secure place wherein we can place our hope and future.   [By Jon W. Quinn, From Expository Files 1.6; June, 1994]

“Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; Let me find refuge under the shelter of your wings.”  [Psalm 61: 3, 4]

Moses’ deepest desire was only to be where God is and to know Him more…if this is the cry of your heart, then do not fear if, for a time, God covers you with His Almighty hand and places you in the cleft of the rock. You may not see for a little while, but while you are there, rest, and trust, for He has placed you “near to where He is” and is acting on your behalf in order that you may know Him more.  [christicue.hubpages.com]

Seek the Glory of God, be sheltered in the Cleft of the Rock, ensconced; cloaked in the ‘peace of God that passes all understanding’ (Philippians 4:7) , and, note to self ……listen to the donkey.

It works!

My turkey painting by Michelle Young of MY Moments

My turkey painting by Michelle Young of MY Moments

I have a friend who sells fat-burning wraps which apparently really work–the name of the company is It Works, after all. I can’t personally attest to the company’s claim, and I don’t know anything about the science behind the products, but I do know one thing: whatever works for me is what I’m going to keep doing.

Recently I read an article by John Piper about gratitude and motivation. Piper reasons with readers and outlines a theological basis for his claim that gratitude is “a species of joy which arises in our heart in response to the good will of someone who does (or tries to do) us a favor.” He goes on to discuss what gratitude is, isn’t, and what it ought to be. And I agree with Piper.

At the same time, I’d like to go on the record by making the most important claim of all about the habit of gratitude: it just works.

That’s it. Is it selfishly motivated? Maybe, at times, depending on the person and circumstances. Is it right or wrong to be thankful for material things rather than people and higher concepts? I don’t know. If my motives for making a gratitude list are to improve my emotional state or attitude, am I being selfish?

Who cares?

I’m the first to admit that I have cared about lofty, heady issues way too much in the past. I cared more about being right than I cared about being happy. I minored in religion and philosophy. I’ve read countless articles, books, and blog posts arguing this point or that, providing plenty of rhetorical arsenal for people like the old Bethany who still need to search for the answers and convince others that their answers are incorrect.

That’s just not me anymore (most of the time, thank God!).

Six and a half years ago, I reached a spiritual breaking point. I found help climbing out of the pit through an anonymous 12-step recovery program for families and loved ones of alcoholics.

I had developed lots of bad habits. I’d become controlling, manipulative, judgmental, critical, cynical, depressed, anxious, and desperate. Ugh. Thankfully, the way of life I found worked for me, and today, the real Bethany keeps emerging little by little.

This program is one of action. It demands that I take action based on what is right, not based on my feelings. One of the ways I do this is by practicing gratitude.

God used the habit of gratitude to help change my attitude and outlook on life. The first step in developing this habit was to keep a daily gratitude list of three items–wholly unique every day. At first, it didn’t change any of my feelings or actions. I kept the list begrudgingly at first because I had been asked to do it. My attitude was not yet transformed :). After a few months, I noticed myself paying more attention to the good moments in my day, to the kind acts of the people around me, and to the beauty in the world. Why? I was looking for items for my gratitude list. I’d become accustomed to focusing on the good, and my focus on the good had minimized the appearance of the bad.

Lo and behold, a few years later, gratitude had become the norm, and grumbling, whining, pitying myself, and worrying began falling to the wayside.

The more I focus on what I have to be grateful for, and the more energy I expend thanking God and thanking others–either in words or actions–the less time and energy I have to dwell on things that bum me out, make me worry, or piss me off.

I make gratitude lists, in my head and on paper. I choose to bite my tongue when I want to whine and moan and try, instead, to say something positive–usually expressing gratitude for someone, or pointing out the good around me. I give gifts–whatever I have to give–because my heart is full of gratitude for God’s love and the miracles He’s done in my life. Giving to others gives me an outlet for that love. I deliberately look for opportunities to thank people who’ve made a positive difference in my life. I try not to post negative comments or updates on my personal social media pages or blogs; instead, I choose to share what’s good. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing negative in my life today. I just don’t feel like focusing on the negative anymore. I also encourage others to be grateful because if the people around me are positive and thankful and mindful of God, then they’ll encourage and motivate me in return.

Isn’t that selfish?

Probably. But that’s okay with me.

I just want to do what works–what helps me make progress.

glory of God quoteI’m primarily concerned with becoming more of who God wants me to be–more of who He made me to be. The Bethany I want to be  is happy, joyous, and free. She worries less and trusts more. She smiles in the face of adversity and laughs over spilled milk. She takes pleasure in spending time with people she loves and loves the people God has put in her life. She celebrates beauty. She is, as John Eldredge puts it, “the glory of God–[wo]man fully alive.”

Life is too short to spend my time picking apart something that works. Gratitude works.

I’ll take it, chalk it up as a blessing, and keep doing it.

 

 

 

 

Oh brother!

*I’m so thankful for Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy for sharing this piece!*

With our book satchels on our arms, my sister Liz and I tumbled out of our dad’s Ford Galaxie 500.  We crunched across the winter grass and bounded up the concrete steps that led to our grandmother’s white frame house.  Our car coats hung loosely on our shoulders as the temperature that January afternoon had climbed into the lower seventies.  We stood at the door and waited for our grandmother, whom we called Mom, to let us in.  Liz and I had spent lots of time with Mom – learning to crochet, putting together jigsaw puzzles, and sleeping in her featherbed.  Usually, I was delighted to spend the night at Mom’s house, but not this time.     

     Mom was short and plump and typically wore an apron over a floral print dress.  She appeared at the door, a twinkle in her mischievous brown eyes when she said, “You two better get in here!”

Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, the year her brother Rob was born

Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, the year her brother Rob was born

Mom waved at our dad as he backed his car out of her driveway and headed to the hospital to check on our mother and our brand new baby brother.

     Liz and I followed Mom through her living room into the kitchen that always smelled of home cooking – roast beef, chicken and dumplings, and biscuits that tasted better cold than most people’s tasted right out of the oven.   She led us back to the den where we generally did our visiting and playing.  Sunlight streamed through the open slats of the Venetian blinds as Liz and I took our places on an overstuffed couch, and Mom sat down in her rocking chair.   

     According to Mom, when the conversation rolled around to our new baby brother, I folded my arms across my chest and proclaimed, “I’ll tell you something right now.  I’m not going to take anything off of him.”

     I’m sure I said it because even though I was seven at the time, I still remember that weighty feeling of distress the day I found out our family of four was about to become a family of five.

     “But I like our family just the way it is,” I remember telling my mother.

     “You’ll like the new baby, too,” she reassured me.

     I wasn’t convinced.  Liz is two years older than I am; and, while she had proven on numerous occasions to be excellent in a crisis, she could also be a bit bossy.  I feared I was about to be bookended by a boss and a baby. 

     Already, I was feeling crowded out by that new baby.  When my dad picked Liz and me up from school, I was all set to tell him what a horrible day I’d had.  Of course, he was full of good news about the baby!  And, worst of all, we didn’t even have time to swing by our house and pick up a change of clothes for the next day.

     “Great,” I thought, fuming in the backseat.  “Not only did I flunk my science test today, I’m going to have to wear these same clothes to school tomorrow.”

     Lo and behold, I survived spending the night at Mom’s house as well as being an outfit repeater the next day at school.  A few days later, my mother and brother came home from the hospital.  The day I had dreaded for months had finally arrived – the bassinet with the blue trim was occupied.

     “This is Robert,” my mother said.

Teresa's little brother, Rob

Teresa’s little brother, Rob

When I peered beneath the bassinet’s hood, I was speechless, and I was in love.  Robert wasn’t the horrible creature I was anticipating.  He wasn’t flimsy either; he weighed nine pounds and twelve ounces when he was born.  In a word, he was perfect.  And, best of all, he couldn’t talk; hence, he couldn’t boss.

     It wasn’t long before Robert, whom we called Rob, could play.  I liked to sit on the big braided rug that covered our living room floor and roll a ball back and forth to him.  We spent many happy hours pulling around his Fisher Price milk wagon and taking the milk bottles out of the wagon and putting them back in again.  On his first birthday, I got him a wind-up toy dog, and my mother told me that was his favorite present.

     A few years later when Liz and I had morphed into pesky adolescents, Rob was a cute kindergartener.  One night, when we were all sitting around the supper table, Liz or I had done something to annoy our mother.  I had possibly stayed in my room after being repeatedly called to the table. (I sometimes got carried away, holding my hairbrush-microphone, singing along with the radio and pretending to be a rock star.)  Or, maybe Liz had lingered in her own room too long, reading a thick novel or practicing her clarinet.  Either one of us was perfectly capable of being the source of our mother’s frustration.

     “I’m running out of patience with you!” she said.

     Rob was sitting next to her, and he held out his pudgy little hand and said, “Here, I’ll give you some of mine.”

     That same year he was the valedictorian of his kindergarten class.  Always the smartest guy in the room, Rob has racked up more academic awards than the rest of the family combined.  He went on to earn an MBA from the University of California at Irvine and become a business owner.

     Everybody hits rough spots in his or her life, and Rob has certainly had his share.  I’ve read a ton of novels and even written a few.  In recent years, Rob’s life has unfolded like a novel you would not be able to put down.  At times, you would love to be the protagonist.  At other times, you thank your lucky stars you aren’t.   My brother has navigated the twists and turns of his life with integrity and a great deal of patience.

     Whenever I have hit rough spots in my own life, Rob has always been there for me.  He is the most loyal person I know.  Funny how it works out, isn’t it?  That baby brother I was so intent on disliking turned out to be a very good friend.